Return to Cameroun
RETURN TO CAMEROUN is the one-hour documentary I finished in 1993. It’s a labor of love – a tribute to my mom Roberta, her four sisters and my grandparents. It played at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, was broadcast on two cable networks and showed on several PBS stations.
DVD copies are available for $35. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to order one.
Please take a look at this six-minute clip. This occurs about 10 minutes into the film when my grandparents, just two weeks after meeting, got married on a German freight steamer en route to Cameroun.
Forty three years after the death of my grandparents, Fred and Roberta Hope, I went to Cameroun, West Africa to visit the remote village where they worked and lived as Presbyterian missionaries for 38 years.
I didn’t know my grandparents — they died before I was born — and my movie “Return to Cameroun” is in many ways a personal journey. A search for emotional legacy. An exploration of the fragile, mysterious fabric of family, memory and emotional connection.
“What is memory?” I wanted to ask. “Something lost or something gained?” How do our perceptions of our parents and grandparents, and consequently our perceptions of ourselves, change as we grow older?
Production Notes – the Making of “Return to Cameroun”
“Return to Cameroun” began in the summer of 1988 when I interviewed my mother and four aunts at a family reunion in Cincinnati. Bittersweet and affectionate, the interviews reveal the conflicts that any missionary’s child comes to know: the privilege of growing up in a foreign culture, the pain of being separated from one’s parents for a long time, the longing to keep memories alive.
My aunts Elizabeth and Arta Grace and a papaya tree, 1916. The papayas are called “paw-paws” and grow as big as watermelons in the tropics. This photo was hand-tinted by my grandmother.
A year after those interviews were filmed, I traced my grandparents steps to Cameroun. It happened when Aunt Winifred told me, almost casually, that she and Aunt Esther, were joining a tour sponsored by the Presbyterian Church. I called Fawn Yacker, the cinematographer who shot all the interviews in Cincinnati, booked passage for us both, and spent two weeks in December 1989 traveling by bus through southern Cameroun.
The highlight was a two-day visit to the village of Elat, my grandparents’ former home and my mother’s birthplace. We had an amazing moment when we arrived and saw a half-mile-long receiving line waiting to greet my two aunts, the long-absent daughters of Fred and Roberta Hope.
Shooting in Africa is never easy. Customs officials threatened to impound our equipment at the airport in Douala, Cameroun. Local police frequently interrupted production — despite the fact that I carried a document from Cameroun’s Minister of Culture and Information giving me permission to film. Also, because the tour was church-sponsored, we were always at the mercy of a rigid itinerary. We rarely had the luxury of setting up equipment. More often, it was guerilla filming. “Shoot and run.”
Returning to the United States, I spent two years working on “Return to Cameroun” when time permitted. As a film critic and arts reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, I could only spare weekends and vacations. Twice I took a leave of absence from work. I really loved it: I made two research trips to the Presbyterian Historical Archive in Philadelphia, where I found medical records, missionary journals and early films shot by my grandparents’ missionary contemporaries. I visited Flat Rock, Illinois, the little farm community where my grandfather Fred was born and reared. To augment the film’s visual texture, I acquired several old films about Africa from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and worked with an archival-film expert (a detective, more or less) to find more material.
Serendipity had a big role in the production. A year or two into the process, Aunt Winifred mentioned a box-load of my grandparents’ personal correspondence that she had saved. The letters, written home from Africa – first to their parents, in later years to their daughters — numbered in the hundreds. They’re an amazing record of my grandparents’ lives, describing their daughters’ early childhood, the vagaries of surviving a tropical climate, Camerounian cuisine and the delicate relationship between missionaries and the local Bulu people. Selections from those letters are read in “Return to Cameroun” by Gena Rowlands (“A Woman Under the Influence”) and the late Pat Hingle (“Batman,” “The Grifters”).
The making of “Return to Cameroun” didn’t’ lack for drama. In October 1991, a firestorm devastated more than 3,000 homes in the Oakland hills – among them the residence of filmmakers Vivienne Verdon-Roe and Michael Porter. Vivienne, an Oscar winner for her documentary “Women – For American, For the World,” had converted her guest house into an editing studio, and rented it to me for my work on “RTC.” Although months of work and dozens of videotapes were destroyed, the loss wasn’t absolute. Luckily, master copies of all the footage were in my bedroom closet.
Starting again from scratch, I rented a video-editing system and installed it in the basement guest room of my home in Oakland — less than a mile from where the firestorm was contained. Veteran film editor Jennifer Chinlund came on board in 1992 and for five months we worked closely on the final cut.
I was lucky in finding gifted film professionals to work on “Return to Cameroun.” Composer Mark Adler wrote the evocative original score – I like to say he gave the film its heart – and Richard Bock designed and edited the sound effects. Vola Ruben art-directed several scenes. Bob Johns at Video Arts in San Francisco was the on-line editor. Bob’s efficiency, artistry and expertise were a huge boon to the project.
Historical Background – Putting Missionary Life in Context
More than a family album, “Return to Cameroun” also places my maternal family’s legacy in the context of American missionary history. It looks back to a time when fraternal workers went by the thousands to India, China, Africa and the Middle East – when a missionary’s life had the same appeal for idealistic young men and women as the Peace Corps several decades later.
The debate over missionary ethics is complex and volatile. I didn’t want to gloss over the issues of cultural imperialism and the imposition of Western culture and religion on African communities. It was important to me to acknowledge the tragic mistakes of many missionaries – and at the same time illustrate the great work of other missionaries. This was the central conundrum in creating “Return to Cameroun.” Ultimately, I couldn’t let the ethical debate dominate or absorb my movie, given that my real purpose was telling a story of family and connection.
The Presbyterian Church sent its first missionary, Rev. John B. Pinney, to Liberia in 1833 and continued to send more workers – despite the fact that life expectancy in the mission field was one to two years. At one time, the west coast of Africa was often called “the white man’s grave.”
By the early 20th century, medicine had improved and sudden death from malaria, black water fever and dysentery was less common. From 1880 to 1930, the peak years for the movement, missionaries were recruited on college campuses by the nondenominational Student Volunteer Movement.
Biography – How My Grandparents Became Missionaries
When my grandfather Fred Hope first went to Cameroun in 1907, he was a 32-year-old former farm boy from southern Illinois. Although his first wife, Lou Johnston Hope, died of malaria within that first year, Fred stayed in Africa for the remainder of his three-year term. In 1911, he came home on furlough and met my grandmother Roberta Brown – a former schoolteacher from North Dakota — at a missionary conference in New York.
Roberta was Africa-bound for her freshman missionary term. Apparently, it was “love at first sight” – many speculated that she reminded him of his first wife. Besotted, Fred arranged to sail on the same ship. During the voyage to England, less than a week after they met, he proposed. Two weeks later, on a German freight steamer bound for Cameroun, my grandparents were married on the captain’s deck. Under the African moon.
My grandfather founded the Frank James Industrial School in Elat, Cameroun in 1908. He started it from the ground up, and within a few years thousands of Camerounian men were learning a variety of self-sustaining skills and trades: carpentry, bricklaying, tailoring, furniture-making, auto mechanics, blacksmithing and craft-making.
My grandmother Roberta Brown Hope taught Bible classes to the women of Elat, as well as hygiene, nutrition and child care. Both learned to speak Bulu, the native language, and both came to regard Cameroun as their home. The first of their five daughters, Arta Grace, was born there in 1912. Elizabeth followed in 1913, then Esther in 1917. My mother, also named Roberta, was born in 1919 and baby Winifred in 1920.
My grandfather Fred was affectionately known as “Papa Hope” by the people of Cameroun. Persistent, diligent, hard working, he was given a Bulu name that captured those qualities. It was the name of the indigenous adjap tree – “the tree not shaken by the wind.”
Cast & Credits
Gena Rowlands (voice of Roberta Brown Hope) was nominated twice for an Academy Award, for “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Gloria,” both directed by her late husband John Cassavetes. She is the winner of four Emmy awards and eight Emmy nominations, two Golden Globes and eight Golden Globes nominations. Her films include Woody Allen’s “Another Woman,” Paul Mazursky’s “Tempest,” Lasse Halstrom’s “Something to Talk About” and five for Cassavetes: “A Child Is Waiting,” “Faces,” “Minnie and Moscowitz,” “Opening Night” and “Love Streams.”
Pat Hingle (voice of Fred Hope) was one of the nation’s top character actors, with a career spanning six decades in film, TV and stage. He appeared in 22 Broadway production, including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “J.B.,” “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” “The Championship Season” and Arthur Miller’s “The Price.” On TV he was paterfamilias P.J. Kennedy in “The Kennedys of Massachusetts.” On film: “On the Waterfront,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “Norma Rae,” “A Thousand Acres” and “The Grifters.” He played Commissioner Gordon in “Batman,” “Batman Returns” and “Batman Forever.” He died in 2009, at 84.
Mark Adler (composer) scored the Oscar-nominated 2009 documentary “Food, Inc.,” the feature comedy “Bottle Shock” and two more Oscar-nominated films: “Superchief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren” and “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” He was composer for “Ishi: The Last Yahi,” “Harry Bridges: A Man and His Union,” the Wayne Wang films “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “Life is Cheap,” and several programs in two documentary series: “The American Experience” and “Nature.” He was a music editor on “Blue Velvet” and “Amadeus.”
Reviews and Viewer Comments
“Filmmaker Edward Guthmann’s grandparents, Fred and Roberta Hope, were Christian missionaries in Cameroon from 1907 to 1945. Narrator Guthmann greatly admires his late grandparents’ work, even though he questions the practice of forcing Western culture on the native Africans. This lovely profile links footage of the filmmaker’s recent visit to Cameroon with vintage [film] footage, photographs and readings of family letters by actor Gena Rowlands and others. The five Hope daughters recall growing up in Africa with their caring but undemonstrative parents. Simple, understated background stills, including well-composed photographs of family mementos, attractively complement occasional background music. Like “Vietnam Mission,” another look at a dedicated missionary couple who served during the same era, this is a well-produced profile.” –Sue-Ellen Beauregard, Audiovisual Media magazine.
“A look at a most untraditional, traditional family … ‘Return to Cameroun’ is a focused, richly evocative memory piece that bravely asks audiences to put aside preconceptions and travel back in time … thoughtful, gentle.” – Paul Bollwinkel, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco
“Guthmann has created a winning portrait of his forebears … His portrait is an even-handed one: he doesn’t unconditionally praise the missionary effort, nor does he simply label it as just another facet of ‘evil imperialism.’ Highly recommended.” – Video Librarian
“I can’t thank you enough for putting this story on film for me and my children. I wanted the story to go on and on.” – Kathy Hartzok, missionary’s granddaughter, Chambersburg, PA
“Return to Cameroun” touched me deeply. The last third of the film found me in tears. This is a film about healing.” – Rev. David Franks. Ft. Lauderdale, FL
“Outstanding. This is one of the most meaningful films I have seen on this part of our mission field in Africa.” – Marj Carpenter, mission interpreter, Presbyterian Church (USA)
“A real labor of love … a beautiful production … The thrust of the Hopes’ commitment to service is shown without embarrassment .. the sense of love and respect as well as the costs of separation are beautifully told.”
– Wally Ellinger, Austin, TX
“A beautiful and sensitive piece of film making. I’m still recalling its rich and loving images.” – William Smith, San Francisco, CA